Exactly a year ago, Simon Stephens' One Minute was playing on the London fringe. It gradually, unobtrusively assembled a collage of the lives of various people touched by a disappearance and death. One Under, Winsome Pinnock's first full-length play in several years, occupies more or less the same territory, although it is more demonstrative in a number of ways.
We begin in a London Underground staff restroom, where jaded Mags is trying in her idiosyncratic way to help Cyrus keep a sense of perspective on his first fatal passenger incident (for which the Tube jargon is "one under", i.e. under the wheels). Cyrus, however, will not let the event go. Cut to a young man asking for a date from the woman behind the counter in a dry cleaner's. This, it gradually transpires, is the deceased Sonny, and scenes from his final day alternate with Cyrus's ever more obsessive quest to find meaning in the death of the man he has now decided was his son. The dry-cleaned jacket, an unfinished can of Special Brew in Sonny's flat, the flowers he planted in his adoptive mother's garden, are all grist to Cyrus's increasingly cracked mill, as we see that the reality is probably far more mundane, just the end of a life spun sadly out of control.
The strength of the piece is in Pinnock's diligent preservation of ambiguity: we never find out which of Sonny's stories about himself are true or to what extent, and the is-he-isn't-he question about Cyrus's fatherhood switchbacks several times, finally with no more than an oblique hint. We see that what Cyrus and Sonny are each doing is little more than we all do in our own lives: attempting to convince ourselves that there's some shape amid all the randomness. The play's weakness is that, in order to marshal all this uncertainty, its final quarter entails moving all too many pieces of the puzzle into close proximity even if they're not actually fitted together. Rather than labouring to provide a too-neat package, Pinnock labours to provide a too-nearly neat one.
Jennie Darnell's unfussy production is dominated by Brian Bovell's self-deluding Cyrus and Daon Broni's mercurial Sonny. But it's Adie Allen as Sonny's date Christine who walks off with the laurels for her heart-stoppingly bittersweet portrayal of a woman who simply tries to keep going with a brave smile.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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